Making Sense of the Indiana Pacers’ 3-Game Renaissance

The Indiana Pacers started the 2019-20 season 0-3 and fans started to wonder if perhaps the team should tank for the first overall draft pick, all while wondering before a single college basketball game that counts has yet been played who’s going to be this year’s Zion Williamson.

Then Jeremy Lamb came back, Goga Bitadze learned practically overnight how to basketball, T.J. Leaf had a whole NBA game in which he managed to not suck, Malcolm Brogdon emerged as the MVP, and now the team is 3-3 and “we’re going to win the championship!”

The reality is somewhere in the middle, of course (45 wins by this very site’s preseason reckoning), but it behooves us to ask “what changed?” and see if any of it is predictive for the Pacers as the season goes on.

So with that in mind, some observations:

The Pistons Just Have Indiana’s Number

Indiana’s biggest weakness has always been its interior presence defensively…sort of.

On the one hand, Myles Turner is an otherworldly rim protector and forces the other team to change game plan offensively when it comes to attacking the basket.

On the other hand, Turner is still a below-average rebounder and gets bullied by stronger players on the blocks, something that just happens to line up a little too perfectly with Andre Drummond‘s bread and butter.

In two games against Detroit, both losses, Drummond had 50 points on 20-of-33 (60.6 percent) shooting, 41 rebounds, six blocks, and three steals.

Then again, this was in the ages BG (Before Goga) and it’ll be fascinating to see on Nov. 8 and Dec. 6 what the rookie can do when, as seems likely, he’ll start getting minutes trying to slow Drummond down.

The Defense Hit Snooze

In the three wins, the Pacers have allowed just 298 total points, showing Defensive Ratings of 107.1 (Brooklyn), 89.5 (Cleveland), and 92.0 (Chicago.)

It’s been enough to push the defense back to 11th in the NBA after the poor start, clocking in at 103.0 overall.

In a six-game sample size, the ability of three (OK, two, the Nets game was a below-average defensive performance by the currently extant standards of this young season) games to swing things back to the good after an awful start shows that Indiana is starting to get its defensive rotations right and figure out how to play the game with the new additions.

Jeremy Lamb’s Emergence

Lamb has started four games so far this season, but the most critical have been the last three, all wins.

He hit 11-of-19 from the field against Brooklyn, 7-of-13 against Cleveland, then made up for a poor 1-of-6 shooting night against Chicago by hitting all nine of his free throws (for 11 points on just 6 FGA) and posting a season-high plus-12.

Lamb’s expectation this year was “provide adequate replacement until Victor Oladipo is back.”

And no doubt, he’s done that. Early returns have him with a .179 WS/48 and on a 2-VORP per-82 pace.

If he’s this good for the rest of his tenure as the starter, the Pacers will be in perfect position not to miss a beat when they’re back at full strength.

El Presidente

Show me a point guard averaging 22.5 points, 9.7 assists, and 5.3 rebounds per game, and I’ll show you an All-Star.

Those are Malcolm Brogdon’s counting stats.

He has a mind-bending plus-5.9 Offensive BPM (14th in the entire league so far), 1.1 Win Shares (8th), and a holy-crap .260 WS/48 (superstar level.)

And his VORP/82 is over 6, which would’ve been fourth in the NBA last year ahead of Rudy Gobert and right up there with Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Please, Basketball Gods, keep Brogdon healthy. Because he has gone from Milwaukee’s third or fourth option to an honest-to-gods MVP-level six-game performance.

Goga Good.

This is my favorite Pacers tweet of the season so far, after Goga fouled out in 19 minutes but not before putting up some solid stats (9 points on 4-of-7, four rebounds, three assists, four blocks) against the Bulls:

As bad as Goga was in his first real action (nine minutes, minus-16, hot trash against the Nets), it looks like the “send him to Fort Wayne!” reaction was premature.

For one thing, he was plus-15 in the very next game, and for another, he’s a raw talent but his clear nose for the ball is on display now that he’s working through his early jitters.

We got ourselves our very own Boban Marjanovic, Pacers fans! Rejoice!

Drawing Conclusions

Are the Pacers as bad as their 0-3 start? Of course not.

Are they as good as their 3-0 rebound? Also no.

But the Dumpster fire has been extinguished and we may now resume rooting for a team that, at worst, is merely “above average”, and at best is a genuine contender for a top-4 seed if Brogdon stays healthy and Goga continues to grow as a rookie.

Go Pacers.